At long last, disputed dance study retracted from Nature

trivers natureA 2005 Nature study that has vexed one of its authors since 2007 is finally being retracted.

The notice for “Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men,” by William M. Brown, Lee Cronk, Keith Grochow, Amy Jacobson, C. Karen Liu, Zoran Popovic´& Robert Trivers, says very little:

We retract this Letter, which reported strong positive associations between symmetry and dancing ability in a group of young Jamaican men. K.G. could not be contacted.

However, a lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over the years on this story, from Trivers’ own website to his 2009 book, The Anatomy of A Fraud: Symmetry and Dance, and many stories in the popular press. A May story in Nature, for example, revealed that Trivers had been temporarily banned from campus following a verbal altercation over the issue. (That story begins, “Few researchers have tried harder than Robert Trivers to retract one of their own papers.”)

As Nature‘s Eugenie Samuel Reich reports:

Trivers began to have doubts in 2007, when a Rutgers graduate student was unable to replicate some of the paper’s findings. On investigation, Trivers found inconsistencies in symmetry measurements between a data set kept by his group and one received from [then-postdoc William] Brown in 2007. “Not only were the values changed, they were not even internally consistent,” says Trivers.

In 2008, Trivers sought to retract the paper, but found the editors at Nature reluctant to do so.

But the case was now being re-evaluated, Reich noted:

An investigation of the case, completed by Rutgers and released publicly last month, now seems to validate Trivers’ allegations. Brown disputes the university’s finding, but it could help to clear the controversy that has clouded Trivers’ reputation as the author of several pioneering papers in the 1970s. For example, Trivers advanced an influential theory of ‘reciprocal altruism’, in which people behave unselfishly and hope that they will later be rewarded for their good deeds. He also analysed human sexuality in terms of the investments that mothers and fathers each make in child-rearing.

The paper has been cited 77 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Trivers is not all that happy with the retraction notice, he tells us:



it took them 8 years after publication of the paper—and five after we submitted a retraction and 4 and a half years after we published PROOF of fraud (later borne out by Rutgers’ investigation) for them finally to “retract” a paper now cited 136 times

part of the long delays is that the journal really sees no upside to admitting fraud and then one of the co-authors Lee Cronk unaccountably defended the fraudster William Brown to the bitter end

here is what happened at the bitter end; this was Nature’s suggested wording:

“Since publication of the Letter, it has come to our attention that
certain aspects of data handling and treatment make the conclusions of the report unsound.”

but Brown and Cronk resisted, hence the following note of mine:

> while the fraudster William Brown and his chief supporter Lee Cronk
> insisted on the following language (now duly adopted by everybody):
> “…certain aspects of data management make the conclusions of the Letter
> unsupported.”
> in other words the first version says that it was because of  flaws in
> data handling that unsound results were produced while the second version
> does not even admit to unsound results–unsupported ones, and then only
> because of problems in data “management”
> this is a slander on Dr Amy Jacobson who is in charge of data management
> and has been for some 12 years
> as shown by myself and ratified by Rutgers there are three independent
> data sets stored at different places and times, e.g. 1999 John Manning in
> the UK, 2004 Brian Palestis in the US) all are identical and internally
> consistent
> Brown and Cronk’s data set have 65 fraudulent entries which are internally
> inconsistent, that is, contradicted as impossible by the rest of their
> data set

so now Nature “retracts’ the paper without saying a thing—once again the fraudsters get to pretend nothing is really amiss—i believe Brown still has his job in the UK

9 thoughts on “At long last, disputed dance study retracted from Nature”

  1. I also note that Nature refuses to retract a fabricated crystal structure from a researcher found guilty of misconduct by his University (UAB) and which Nature News even reported the results of the investigation. They are very weird about these things. Oddly, they will publish stories about this stuff on their news/features side, but the editorial side doesn’t touch it.

  2. Pretty standard ‘reputation/brand management- make a lot of noise about the process of publishing, but do not go anywhere near fixing problems “at home”. One only has to turn to David Vaux’s excellent guest post here at RW a while back ( to understand why in the present caseNature did nothing for so long and now have taken minimalist action, which actually harms an innocent bystander.

  3. This is just one in a long list of fraud that Nature has knowingly protected for the sake of their brand. Why anyone bothers to cite the journal is completely beyond me.

  4. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s dictum “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs”. The original paper (I well remember it, it was a cover story!) was even at the time pretty incredible to me — and I would hope the editors would scrutinize such a paper carefully. This in contrast to an exciting paper with plenty of lines of evidence from different sources (e.g. a recent Nature paper on fossil groundwater below the Chesapeake coastal plain). It seems Nature was eager for an eye-grabbing cover. Acting like New Scientist. Definitely their reputation has taken a blow in my estimation.

  5. The key here to to realize that Nature (and Science) are not really academic journals. They are magazines who consider themselves gatekeepers of the Hot New Thing.

    Much like Vogue, publication in the magazine is self-validating. In other words, I am hot _because_ I am published in Vogue/Science/Nature. When fashion is the subject, issues like ethics, integrity and accuracy are not relevant.

    Has Vogue ever retracted an article? If not, why should Nature or Science?

  6. It looks like William Brown has removed the paper from his list of “representative” publications:

    as it was happily there a couple of months ago:

    The professorial spat notwithstanding, I wonder whether the University of Bedfordshire, which employs William Brown, is following up on the NSF funded Rutgers investigation findings.

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